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Beating The Summer Heat- Signs of Heatstroke in Pets

Jade, Dr. Jen's pooch, enjoying some time at the beach

Summer is finally in full force in Chicago! While we’re outside soaking up the sun with our dogs and trying to enjoy the limited time of the year we can spend outside in this city without a heavy winter coat, it’s extremely important to note that dogs deal with heat much differently than humans do. When the ambient temperature rises, dogs’ core body temperatures can easily overheat due to their inability to adequately cool themselves. Prolonged overheating or excessive overheating results in heat stroke. Heatstroke is a critical condition where a dog’s body temperature rises beyond the body’s ability to function and results in multiple organ failure and potentially death.

When we get hot, our bodies are able to cool off by exuding little droplets of water from our skin (sweat), which helps remove heat and cool our body temperature. The largest organ in our bodies, our skin has quite a large surface area which helps remove heat from our bodies successfully. Dogs, however, do not sweat through their skin. The only way that a dog can eliminate heat from their body is by panting (and some sweat glands in the pads of their feet, but these only minimally help cool them). Therefore, humans are much more efficient at cooling our bodies in the face of heat, which is why we can’t always rely on ourselves to be good judges of when it’s too hot for our dogs.

Signs of hyperthermia (overheating) and heat stroke in dogs include: excessive panting, drooling, lack of coordination, weakness, red gums, vomiting, diarrhea, disorientation, and collapse.

Certain dogs are much more at risk of overheating. Brachycephalic dogs, or those breeds with flat faces or shortened noses like Pugs, Bulldogs, etc. have smaller airways and more soft tissue in their mouths, making them much less efficient at cooling themselves by panting and additionally, more at risk for breathing difficulties in the face of heat. Dogs that are older, overweight, and/or have thick fur are also much more susceptible to overheating.

The most threatening and unfortunately most common scenario where dogs are at risk of over-heating is when left in a car without the AC on. When the outside temperature is just 70 degrees, the inside temperature of a car can feel like 100 degrees in just minutes. Leaving a cracked window will not sufficiently ventilate a car to make it suitable for a dog on a hot day. If you have to think about whether it’s safe to leave your dog in your car, you shouldn’t. If you see a dog left in car on a hot day, if they show any of the above signs or appear in distress, you should call the police. If there are no signs of distress you should briefly try to locate the owner and if you cannot do so within several minutes, then you should call the police. Use your best judgment.

Dogs left outside without any shade and/or water and dogs that are active on a hot day are also at risk of over-heating. Some dogs are so highly motivated by playing or being outside that they may not realize their bodies are over-heating. Hyperthermia can develop within minutes, so we need to advocate for our dogs and make decisions to prevent them from over-heating.

Always make sure your dog has access to water and shade on a hot day. If you take your dog for a walk allow them to take breaks and provide water as frequently as possible. If your dog shows signs of over-heating, they should be seen by a veterinarian and assessed for heatstroke. Heatstroke is an emergency condition. Dogs who suffer heatstroke need to have their body temperature reduced in a safe, controlled manner and be treated for any secondary signs or conditions. Heatstroke can be fatal with or without treatment. Survival depends on severity of heatstroke, timeliness of treatment, and any other health factors that could complicate recovery.

One additional factor to think about when you’re out with your dog in the summertime is risk of burned pads by the hot pavement. When asphalt or other hard surfaces are baking in the sun, their temperature can feel 50 degrees hotter than the air temperature. When temperatures outside are above 75, limit or avoid walking on asphalt. Walk in the grass instead and stick to shady areas. If your dog starts holding one of their paws up or limping, get them off of the concrete immediately and have their paws assessed by a veterinarian.

The best ways to prevent overheating or heatstroke are avoiding exposure to excessive heat, keeping dogs out of parked cars in the summertime, and always providing shade and unlimited water when outside. Always remember that heat feels very different to our dogs than it does to us. If you keep this in mind and exercise good judgment, you can have a safe, fun summer with your dog.

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